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White Lady Black & White ImageThe White Lady of the Brandberg  White Lady Color Image

A common misconception is that South African rock art depicts exotic 'foreigners'. People who believe the Bushmen to be mentally incapable of producing art, naturally have to find alternative artists to account for the immense quantity of rock art in southern Africa, and they seek evidence in the art itself. One of the most influential figures in the study of prehistoric art in Europe and elsewhere, the Abbe Henri Breuil, was responsible for some gross errors that are still encountered today. He believed that he could identify depictions of Minoans, Phoenicians and other Mediterranean people in southern African rock art. The painting that gave rise to his most spectacular blunder, the so-called White Lady of the Brandberg, has become a persistent legend, even enjoying the doubtful distinction of appearing in one of Erich von Daniken's books where the author implies that it depicts a being from outer space - the ultimate in exoticism. The story of its discovery and fame illustrates some disastrous trends that have damaged rock art research and discredited it in the eyes of professional archaeologists and other interested people.

The painting was discovered in 1917 by Reinhardt Maack, who was preparing a map of the Brandberg, the famous mountain in Namibia. While on a visit to South Africa in 1929, Breuil saw Maack's copy of the painting but did not visit the site.

When the Abbe returned to South Africa during the Second World War, he was able to examine more recent photographs of the painting and, fired with new enthusiasm, he wrote to General J.C. Smuts, who was then prime minister:

I send you the portrait of a charming girl, who has been waiting for us on a rock in the Brandberg range for perhaps three thousand years; do you think it well to keep her waiting much longer?

Although Smuts did not grant Breuil's request for transport to the Brandberg, the Abbe knew he was assured of a sympathetic hearing. Smuts, who, like many others at that time, considered the Bushman `mentally stunted' and `a desert animal', could be expected to welcome the discovery of any evidence of European influence in the art.

Eventually, in 1947, when Breuil did manage to reach the remote Brandberg, he continued his romanticising:

As we approached the place, the impression it conveyed of a great fallen acropolis or palace was intensified; between the granite slabs and boulders there are flat sand-covered surfaces like squares or courts between dwellings. At noon on the day of our arrival in the ravine, we climbed a natural stairway and passed two boulders. We then found ourselves confronting the painting which had been haunting me for eighteen years and which we had come so far to see.

Throughout his description of the site and its environs, Breuil conjures a picture of a ruined Minoan or Greek city, despite the fact that the place is a perfectly natural, arid mountain valley. He thus cleverly sets the scene for the `discovery' to come.

In such surroundings, the reader is led to believe, one would not be surprised to find something exotic, startling and strange. Indeed, many rock art books, following Breuil's lead, seem more concerned with spectacular scenery, the hardships endured getting to remote sites and the thrill of discovery than with the paintings themselves.

While copying the paintings Breuil was visited by Colonel Hoogenhout, the Administrator of the territory, who declared, apparently with Breuil's approval, `This is no Bushman painting: this is Great Art!' When Smuts saw Breuil's copy, he was even more effusive. According to Breuil, he exclaimed, `You have upset all my history . . . When you publish these paintings, you will set the world on fire and nobody will believe you.' The legend of the White Lady of the Brandberg was well and truly launched.

More recent and sober research has questioned Breuil's interpretation. In the first place, the White Lady is a male figure, a point on which Maack has no doubt. As Harald Pager's meticulous copy shows, close inspection reveals it has a penis. It also carries a bow and arrows, specifically male equipment. Certainly, the White Lady lacks the Mediterranean profile that Breuil claimed for it, and the fact that the lower half of the figure is painted in white in no way implies that it depicts a European. The Bushmen did not always use colours realistically. Elephants, for instance, were painted in red, black or white. In any event, white human figures abound in Bushman rock art and most of them are clearly Bushmen. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, just above the White Lady there is an antelope with human hindlegs, and this alone argues against a rigorously literal interpretation of the panel.

The White Lady and accompanying figures are clearly Bushman rock paintings, striking but no different from many paintings throughout southern Africa. Only someone unfamiliar with the broad sweep of Bushman rock art would wish to single out the White Lady for special treatment.

Another myth about southern African rock art must be consigned to oblivion: the famous White Lady of the Brandberg is neither white nor a lady.

Adapted from Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art by J.D. Lewis-Williams and T.A. Dowson.